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10.26 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The Secretary of State will forgive me if I do not follow the line that he took for much of his speech, which was, by way of giving his view of the worthiness of the talks process, the work that it has gone through and the basis of the forum. I do not follow him because I think that he is attempting to achieve by deflection what the Northern Ireland Office attempted to achieve by deception.

In a press release issued on 10 March, the Northern Ireland Office stated that the forum was being suspended. The order shows clearly that there is to be a cessation. The Secretary of State is wiping away the Northern Ireland elected body that was set up as a result of the elections last year. He does that without any degree of balance.

When the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 went before the House, it had an equivalence--on the one hand a talks process, and on the other the Northern Ireland forum. The Act made it clear that the elections that would be held would be for those two purposes. On that basis, Unionists were prepared to take part. For Unionists, the process clearly required those two facets. As soon as the Secretary of State takes away one of those facets, he undermines the whole. In short, there will be no talks if there is no forum.

The bottom line in terms of the order is that the Secretary of State is wasting the time of the House. The House does not need to deal with the order. There is no requirement for it. The Secretary of State has a responsibility under the Act to bring the forum to a conclusion if he judges that the talks have been either concluded or suspended.

The participants in the talks process made it abundantly clear when asked for their views at the last meeting that they were adjourning the talks and that they were doing so to a specific date. There was no question in their minds but that they were suspending the talks. There was no view expressed that the talks were concluded. The talks were adjourned to a specific date and that was not the first

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occasion on which that had happened. On several previous occasions, the talks had similarly been adjourned, the most recent being the adjournment over the Christmas and new year period. There was nothing new in the participants' deciding to adjourn proceedings.

The talks participants did not adjourn for the reason the Secretary of State offered the House tonight. I was somewhat surprised by his indication that there were problems in relation to decommissioning--that an impasse had been reached; thus, he said, suspension, but disagreement on decommissioning had nothing to do with the reason for the adjournment. The adjournment came because of the expected elections for the House of Commons and for local government in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State is asked in section 7(4) of the 1996 Act to determine whether negotiations have concluded or suspended. Clearly they had not done so, so the forum could have continued its business until it decided, in its wisdom, that it would be appropriate to adjourn. What did the forum decide? It decided that, because of the two elections, it would adjourn its business. It has already resolved that it should adjourn--it has taken the decision and is now in adjournment. The body that the Secretary of State seeks through tonight's order to put into cold storage has already put itself into cold storage. It is master of its own business. It has determined that it will adjourn until 30 May--the last possible date to which it could have adjourned under the present legislation.

The Secretary of State, in proceeding with this order tonight, must therefore have some motive other than to stop the forum from meeting--the forum did not intend to meet. Why does he do it? I can offer two explanations, and he can choose between them. One explanation might be that he is afraid that the committees might continue and do some valuable work, or that the forum might decide to come out of adjournment and make some public comment unfavourable to the Government. That is one possibility, but the Secretary of State should not run away from the views of the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

The other possible explanation is that the IRA-Sinn Fein organisation demanded that the Secretary of State close down the forum. Is he being obedient to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who have required him to do what he is doing here tonight? I let him choose which of those two explanations is the right one. If he has a third, let him tell it to the House tonight, because he has yet to tell the people of Northern Ireland what reason he has for doing something that is totally unnecessary. The forum has decided itself that it should adjourn, and the legislation does not require him to cause the forum to cease to have effect if it has adjourned to a specific date.

I hope that the Secretary of State will face up to those issues. He has put on public record his understanding that a future Conservative Government after the 1 May election would be prepared to resurrect the forum if talks were to proceed, and I seek a similar statement from the Labour party. I heard Labour Front Benchers' comments on local radio, and I hope that they, too, will put their views--dare I say unequivocally--on public record tonight. I put it to them that in the forum we have a body that has done a significant and positive job for the people of Northern Ireland.

Labour Members should not decry the fact that, in some areas, politicians in Northern Ireland have not achieved agreement. It does not automatically follow that we have

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done a good job in areas about which we agree--such as agriculture, health, education or drugs--and a bad job in areas on which there is not unanimity. If those were the criteria, what obituary would the House have, given that we disagree on a wide spectrum of matters? The record of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation would be much better than the record of the House of Commons if the litmus test that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) offers were the right one.

The forum has done a significant job in airing controversial issues. The fact that a matter is controversial does not mean that it should not be raised in the forum. If we are to achieve understanding in Northern Ireland, it is important that each party understands the angle of vision of the others, so the forum has performed an important role. There were 31 plenary meetings. About five or six committee reports have been produced. The committees would have wanted to continue their work and produce further reports. As an innovation, a representative whom the Secretary of State had appointed to carry out a review of policing in Northern Ireland spoke to the forum and was questioned by it--all in a calm, deliberative manner.

The work of the forum deserves significant credit, and I am glad that the Secretary of State made it clear that, even in his assessment of the performance of the forum, substantially, it had worked to its credit.

Before I conclude, may I say to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that there really is a requirement--I put it as strongly as that, a requirement--on the SDLP to return to the forum? Its representatives cannot turn their back on the elected body to which they were elected. The people of Northern Ireland from their tradition determined that they should be at the forum to speak and vote on their behalf. Through no fault of the Unionist representation in the forum, the SDLP turned its back on the forum and decided, because it was under pressure on an issue of public concern in Northern Ireland, to take it out on the forum. That is essentially what the SDLP did.

The only ugly scene that I witnessed in the forum involving the SDLP was an attack on the SDLP, not by the Unionists, but by the so-called sister party of the Liberal Democrats, the Alliance party, which sneaked into the forum, stole the seats of the SDLP and tried to push it into the background.

Who stood up for the rights of the SDLP in the forum? The Unionist parties. The SDLP has no reason to say that the Unionists were not sympathetic to ensuring that its rights were protected in the forum.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I am sure that that was an odd line that the hon. Gentleman was fishing with to get me to respond. Let the House know that the SDLP withdrew from the forum because it was the only democratic weapon that we had to show our horror and disgust at the Drumcree events, the intimidation of our communities and the blocking of every road in Northern Ireland, led by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. What did people want us to do--go to the barricades?

Mr. Robinson: The hon. Gentleman has confirmed that he took out on the forum something that was not its

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responsibility. He talks about taking up a democratic weapon, but there is little sense in taking up a democratic weapon if one merely shoots oneself in the foot with it, as he and the SDLP have done.

I noticed the hon. Gentleman marching in the St. Patrick's day parade a few days ago. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, on calm reflection, while going around his constituency during the coming election, will spend a moment to think of the useful work he could be doing on behalf of his constituents in the forum. If the new Government take the step of resurrecting the forum, and we then attend our first meeting, I hope to see the pleasant, smiling face of the hon. Member for South Down as he takes his seat on the forum benches.

10.39 pm

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): St. Patrick, great British personality that he was, has been mentioned this evening. I have just spent a long weekend in Washington attending various events marking the annual occasion. I was at the White House, at our British embassy and elsewhere. I travelled back last night, and have been on my feet for the past 36 hours, so I shall certainly not speak at great length.

I want to thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) for her tribute to our former parliamentary leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), who is leaving the House at the forthcoming election. I know that he will thank her himself, but I wanted to place my party's appreciation for her kind thoughts on the record.

In turn, we wish the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland all the best. As a former Stormont Minister, I know that the role he has had to play is one of the most difficult in the Government of the United Kingdom. It is not just a matter of deciding policies; the job concerns issues of life and death. No other Cabinet Minister carries such serious responsibilities. Although my party has had many differences with the Secretary of State on issues of policy, I and my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party know that he believed at all times that he was acting in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We appreciate the time and service which he has given our community.

I find it difficult to understand the order under discussion. I share the views of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson); I remain unconvinced that such an order is necessary. If it is possible to adjourn the forum for the Christmas recess, it seems to me possible to adjourn it for the few weeks of a general election campaign. I fail to understand the need for an order formally suspending the body. I can certainly understand the need for an order to resume the forum after 31 May--the legislation requires that if the forum is to have a second year of life.

In Northern Ireland, there are three possible ways forward. One is to resort to violence, to killing, to terrorism and to destruction. We have had that for more than 27 terrible years, and we do not want to fall back into it. The second option is for the Dublin Government and our Government to attempt to impose a solution on Northern Ireland. That will definitely result in street reaction by the people of Northern Ireland. We have had that before, and we do not want violence again.

The only way forward, therefore, is dialogue and agreement. That is what the legislation providing for the forum and the talks process was all about. I am glad of

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the recognition of the progress that has been made in the talks process at Stormont. We have reached agreement on a number of issues: on the chairmanship, the rules of procedure, and the agenda for the first plenary session. Whenever there was a crisis on those issues, it was the Ulster Unionist party that gave the lead in bringing about agreement. I believe that the talks process can make progress.

The good news is that the nine participating parties that entered the talks nine months ago, even if others tried to throw them out, are still there tonight. That is an achievement in Northern Ireland, where so many people have walked out of talks on various issues over many years.

Tributes have been paid to the forum's work. I agree that it has passed many motions and resolutions that would appeal to Labour Members, as was said in an earlier debate. Likewise, the committee work has been imaginative and has contributed towards parties in Northern Ireland working together for the good of all the people there. We have had reports on BSE, potatoes, agriculture and many other issues, all of which have been first-class productions.

Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I appeal to the Social Democratic and Labour party to reconsider its position. Dialogue requires everyone to participate--that is, everyone who opposes violence. The SDLP has portrayed itself as--and is--a constitutional party. From time to time, through its leader, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), it has said that it will talk anywhere, any place, any time. Our national Parliament created a forum in Belfast and I hope that, after the forthcoming general election, when the political temperature subsides, we shall find the SDLP taking its proper place in the Northern Ireland forum.

We in the Ulster Unionist party want to see the forum and the talks proceed. If there is no forum, there will be no talks process because the legislation combines both--one goes with the other. The Government clearly understand that message, which is why we welcome the Secretary of State's statement that, after the general election, a future Conservative Government would restore the forum in Northern Ireland. Likewise, the hon. Member for Redcar also made a commitment that a future Labour Government would restore the forum in Belfast. We welcome the Labour party's statement and look forward to the election. Whichever party wins, we are thankful that we shall once again have a forum in Belfast in June 1997.

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